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Still Smiling: Denim’s Decades-Long Connection to the Smiley Face

One of the first examples of Smiley—the universally-loved symbol of happiness—appearing on denim was with Levi’s, which used Smiley patches in the early ’70s. “It was one of my father, Franklin’s, first licenses,” said Nicolas Loufrani, CEO of The Smiley Company.

As an iconic global brand, Levi’s set the stage for other brands throughout the decades to use Smiley in new ways, he said. Smiley has been entrenched in the denim world ever since with partnerships including Bershka, H&M and Pull & Bear.

“I believe denim brands love working with Smiley because innovation is at the core of our brand’s values and the marketing identity,” Loufrani said. “We are constantly working with brands to create unique ways to propel denim further into culture.”

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, The Smiley Company teamed with 50-plus designers for a Collector’s Edition collection that includes dopamine-inducing Dsquared2 hoodies, Palm Angels tees, Alice & Olivia sequin skirts, Carolina Herrera gowns, Schott bomber jackets, Pintrill buttons and more. It also reconnected with long-term “denim culture” partner, Lee, for a jean jacket. The products began to roll out in February and were highlighted in select Pop-In@Nordstrom locations.

“Over the last five decades, Smiley has collaborated with brands across all categories imaginable—from fashion to music, to design, accessories, travel and more—with the iconic smiley influencing culture every step of the way,” said Nicolas Loufrani, The Smiley Company CEO. “This collaboration with Lee showcases our commitment together to continue to spread positivity and smiles.”
Lee x Smiley Courtesy

More recently, H&M launched a men, women and kids collection of Smiley gear spanning cotton twill work shirts and wide-leg pants, sweater vests, varsity jackets and skate-inspired tees adorned with the icon.

Here, Loufrani further examines Smiley’s connection to denim and why the world needs more smiles.

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Why does Smiley’s message still resonate with consumers?

Nicolas Loufrani: The last few years have been challenging for everyone. In honor of our 50th anniversary, we declared 2022 to be ‘the year of the smiles’ because we found that while 40 percent of Americans admit they smiled less in 2020 and 2021 than in previous years, 70 percent of Americans agree they want to see more smiles in 2022. These findings show that now more than ever, the world needs more smiles.

1970s Miss Levi’s jean from Europe
Miss Levi’s Jeans from the 1970s. Levi's

What’s the secret of a good collaboration?

NL: Our goal is not mass licensing and production—it is to ensure Smiley, and our partners, remain at the forefront of culture in a strategic and positive way. Therefore, when assessing a denim partner, we look at how their brand ethos align with ours—will they use the Smiley to spread happiness and positivity or just to sell their product? Does this partner want to bring Smiley to life in a unique way? Is the brand’s product and culture like ours? And of course, we also look at their distribution strategy to ensure it is not prioritizing mass production and distribution. This level of assessment ensures that the partnership is successful for Smiley and the denim brand and therefore denim brands continue to collaborate with us.

Over time, we have built unlimited ways to work with fashion brands, especially denim brands. For example, each season, we develop more than 30 bespoke style guides and product presentations for our partners to utilize based on the latest trends, market segments and consumer insights.

What’s next for Smiley?

NL: At Smiley, our goal is to spread positivity through smiles to make the world a happier, kinder place. Throughout the last five decades, all our collaborations, partnerships and experiences have laddered up to this ethos. As we look ahead to the next fifty years and beyond, we’re constantly finding ways to show people why smiling back at the world—together—is exactly how we reclaim what comes next.